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SUMMER 1999: v4i2 INDEX

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SUMMER, 1999: Volume 4 Issue 2

Alternatives to Violence and Peacebuilding in Colombia by Paul Stucky

The current war in Colombia has been going on, in one form or another, for 50 years. Direct war-related violence comes from the actions of the army, the paramilitary and the guerrilla groups. But violence, in its many forms, is part of everyday life. And there is an awareness of the need to build peace, trust, and nonviolent conflict resolution, not only through the peace processes of the warring factions, but in community organizations, neighborhoods and churches. Justapaz, the Centro Cristiano para Justicia, Paz y Accion Noviolenta, is an initiative of the Mennonite Church of Colombia to contribute to peacebuilding in our country. One of the ways we have worked is using the methods of the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). As our work has evolved the vision of AVP has become a part of how we think of our work.

We began by offering AVP workshops to church congregations with whom we work. Local congregations are part of the grassroots structure of the Mennonite Church, tied in locally and living out the conflicts of their surrounding communities. Through these workshops, people learned different ways of dealing with conflict. We heard the witness of people who had never spoken out finding their voice and feeling empowered. The groups moved to new unity and more of a sense of community. In one instance a joint economic project emerged when the group was working with a small amount of real money as part of a decision-making and power exercise (Power 1,2,3,4). The group worked through the exercise and actually began a chicken-raising project. This is not an insignificant outcome in a country with official unemployment currently over 19% and in which the economic structure is itself a major form of violence. Economic need is acute, and often fuels violent responses to conflict.

We then began to incorporate aspects of AVP methodology and exercises into courses and workshops at all levels, from the local community, to the university, to gatherings of people working for justice and peace. We used exercises for icebreaking, for listening, for self-esteem, for community building, for role playing, and for recognizing transforming power and the spiritual dimension of nonviolence and peacebuilding. It has helped people to encounter themselves, to grapple with convictions regarding violence and nonviolence, to build community, to recognize and develop skills, and to integrate theory and practice through a process of discovery and affirmation.

I give some examples of our inclusion of AVP methods in courses or workshops on human rights, peacebuidling or community mediation. We often use the Adjective-Name exercise at the beginning. It serves to introduce people in a way which engages them. The Affirmation exercise in pairs brings people together, helps them value themselves and each other, and makes it possible to work on the ways and importance of listening. We have adapted the Concentric Circles (Dialogue in Pairs) exercises to many topics. It enriches theoretical reflection and deepens people’s acquaintance and connections with each other. I emphasize the matter of connections, because in situations of war and deep conflict, distrust and distance occur, making it difficult to work together. The divisions in the broader society are replicated unconsciously among those working for peace.

The AVP manual offers two different exercises for exploring what violence is. One exercise (What is Violence II) invites the group to generate lists of what is violence and then what is nonviolence. We have found this exercise to be of limited usefulness, since it tends to lead to involved theoretical debates. By contrast, the other exercise (What is Violence I) focuses on personal experiences of violence. We have adapted it to ask people to describe experiences of the worst kind of violence they have experienced, rather than simply to define the worst kind of violence. This often leads to a rich sharing and helps connect experience to theory and belief in a way that deepens the exploration of the topic.

More examples can be given: The Empathy Exercise, the trust exercises, the role plays, and more. All of these serve to help incorporate an experiential dimension to workshops, giving them vitality. They help integrate theory with life practices, contributing to a consistency between what we, and participants, affirm with our minds and how we live. Incorporating the experiential dimension has also helped build community. And a deep familiarity with AVP has helped us to create new exercises and new adaptations of experiential learning to community training workshops on a variety of topics.

At the same time, we have found that when we lead strictly AVP workshops, participants want to know what are the theoretical framework and assumptions that underlie the exercises in which we invite them to take part. This has been a good question, leading us to examine our own intentionality in what we are doing. And of course, it invites a consideration if theoretical assumptions should be explicitly laid out in the course of the AVP workshop. A challenge to AVP is to help participants make the link between their personal, individual experience and broader societal efforts at alternatives to violence.

As we have developed and implemented training activities in human rights, peacebuilding, and mediation, we have been exploring the implications of the writings of John Paul Lederach, such as Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies. We began to hold four-day seminar/workshops with John Paul and others which have brought together people from all walks of life who are working for justice and peace, from people immersed in a local community to those working at a national level, from NGO’s to people from government ministries, from educational backgrounds of grade-school only to university degrees. Through these seminar/workshops people have encountered each other, and begun to build bridges across differences.

Out of one of those workshops came an invitation to join people in the Ministry of Interior and the Presidential High Commission on Peace to design a peacebuilding project in a war-torn area of the country. In two intensive days of work, with the participation of John Paul Lederach, we developed a plan for a “transforming space” as an organizing notion. The idea is to build relationships and do workshops with all the sectors of civil society, the government, and the warring factions in the area, bringing together members of each of the sectors in informal, nonofficial meetings where they get to know each other, share perspectives on community problems and generate ideas for solutions. These ideas can then be taken back to their respective groups and enrich the formal, official settings where decisions are made. At the same time, connections are made at the local, regional and national levels to support efforts at the local level.

This workshop applies the AVP idea of “transforming power” to the encounter that can take place between diverse people and groups. It fosters the same transforming experience that can take place in AVP workshops themselves, in which people encounter themselves and each other and are changed individually and collectively.

The project went from design to action, and is now in its second year. It advances at the pace set by the people and communities themselves. It has been well received by some, and viewed with distrust by others. But in war and conflict situations, being trustworthy and building trust is what is needed if relationships are to be made right and violence is to be interrupted.

A second idea developed by Lederach is that of an “infrastructure for peace” which recognizes the necessity and importance of building relationships both vertically and horizontally among actors for peace. It lays out a broad vision of community effort, in which the role and value of each person is recognized and integrated into a common effort to build peace. In developing the training component of this idea the experiential focus of AVP methodology has been valuable.

The second level of AVP deepens particular aspects of human conflict and reconciliation. Issues such as power and forgiveness are vital to community and national processes of building peace. AVP can contribute to finding ways to reconciliation through the labyrinth of suffering and injustice which characterize situations of war and conflict such as ours.

Right now we are living a difficult time in Colombia. People and organizations working for justice and peace have been declared military targets by one of the warring factions, and are viewed with distrust by one or all of the other parties to the war as well. It is a time for international solidarity, caring and sustaining prayer. Perhaps that will contribute to making all of Colombia a transforming space and open people to a transforming power that can lead to what 50 or 500 years of war has not accomplished.

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